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Cartel Trial Challenged

Defendants say new evidence destroys credibility of government’s star witness

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Frank Hamilton


Two cocaine conspirators convicted in February, after a riveting federal trial that showed how Mexican cartel drugs reach Baltimore street corners (“Corner Cartel,” Feature, Feb. 23), say newly shared government evidence contradicts important testimony the prosecutors’ star witness made before the jury. In May 5 filings by their attorneys, the defendants, who are scheduled to be sentenced later this month, asked U.S. District Judge William Quarles to dismiss their indictment after granting their request for a new trial.

The two men, Jose Cavazos and Wade Coats, were convicted on Feb. 7 after about an hour of jury deliberations. The most compelling narrative provided during the five days of testimony came from Alex Noel Mendoza-Cano, a government cooperator who has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing in Texas for his own drug-dealing crimes. Mendoza-Cano told the jury, at length and in great detail, of his exploits as a key operative for the Gulf and Los Zetas cartels, distributing large loads of drugs across the eastern half of the United States, including in Baltimore, and returning the cash proceeds back to cartel suppliers in Mexico. He swore that Cavazos and Coats helped bring cartel drugs to Baltimore.

The defendants’ attorneys—Ivan Bates and Thomas Donnelly representing Coats, and Marc Zayon on behalf of Cavazos—say in their filings that two and a half months after the trial, prosecutors mailed to them 33 pages of notes detailing what Mendoza-Cano told an investigator. They argue that the contents of those notes, which should have been provided to them well in advance of the trial pursuant to the case’s discovery agreement, would have given them a host of ways to devastate Mendoza-Cano’s credibility before the jury.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein wrote in a May 6 e-mail to City Paper that “after the trial, our prosecutors learned that a federal agent in Texas previously had interviewed Mr. Mendoza-Cano. They obtained the interview report and disclosed it to defense counsel on April 25. It is obvious that our prosecutors were acting in good faith.” He added that “we believe that the information in the report would not have made any difference to the outcome of the trial.”

Bates, reached by phone on May 6, said, “I can’t let you look at the documents” because they “possibly could be sealed” pursuant to the discovery agreement. “But the documents go to the heart of our defense and the government’s case,” he added. “Any time you have a witness, you go after questions of their credibility and whether they are biased. These documents strongly show, in our view, that there are a number of credibility issues and bias issues with Mr. Mendoza-Cano.”

In the filings, the attorneys write that “the materials contain admissions of Alex Mendoza-Cano, contrary to his testimony, as to his direct participation in murders, kidnappings, rapes, robberies, thefts, extortion, bribery, and other criminal conduct.” The notes also show Mendoza-Cano’s “extraordinary bias” because they “provided information that he severely beat Mr. Cavazos’ brother and attempted to murder Mr. Cavazos.”

Mendoza-Cano admitted to the note-taking agent, the filings state, that “he was actually going to murder Cavazos,” but “Cavazos had gotten arrested before he could carry out the murder.” This raises the possibility that Mendoza-Cano’s trial testimony, if it was filled with lies and contradictions as the defense attorneys suggest, was intended to take out Cavazos—if not by murder, then by a lengthy prison sentence.

The attorneys point out that, at trial, Mendoza-Cano “testified that he does not like guns.” The notes, however, have him admitting to owning a gun and saying that he “has murdered so many people that he does not remember how many he has killed,” that “he has murdered a man and his pregnant wife at a soccer game,” and that he admitted to “killing eight men” when “he threw grenades in a house and subsequently burned it to the ground.”

Before the jury, the attorneys write, Mendoza-Cano was “adamant that he would not lie.” Yet the notes reveal he told investigators that “he could lie to other men, but he could not lie to God.”

The interview notes also contradict Mendoza-Cano’s trial testimony about how the cartel drugs got to Baltimore, the attorneys argue. He told the jury that Cavazos and Coats were partners in getting drugs to the Baltimore market, and that after their arrest the supply chain was maintained by Mendoza-Cano and another co-defendant in the case, James Bostic. But the notes reflect Mendoza-Cano saying that Cavazos’ brother, not Cavazos himself, procured cartel drugs for Bostic, not Coats.

Rosenstein wrote in his e-mail that “we will oppose the motion for a new trial,” adding that “Mr. Mendoza-Cano testified in court that he was a career criminal who worked for a violent drug cartel and that he had little or no contact with defendants Coats and Cavazos. It is up to the judge to decide whether the report would have changed the jury’s verdict.”

Bates said that, while the interview notes should have been available to them prior to the trial, “the simple fact” that the prosecutors—assistant U.S. attorneys James Wallner and Peter Nothstein—“sent them to us speaks to the volume of their integrity and credibility, and that of their office.”

The prosecutor and defense attorney in Mendoza-Cano’s criminal case in Texas—Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Tromblay and federal public defender Laura Harper—did not return phone calls for comment before press time. Mendoza-Cano’s sentencing date there, where he pleaded guilty in March 2010, has been reset several times, and is currently scheduled for June.

UPDATE: On May 9, Quarles cancelled the defendants' sentencing hearings, which had been scheduled for later this month, and ordered a telephone conference for May 12 to set new dates and "resolve other scheduling matters."

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